Friday, July 17, 2009

Basque food in Elko

Originally published in the Post Register.
ELKO, Nevada-We asked the nice young lady running the cash register at Elko’s Star Restaurant how many people finish the family-style supper we’d just left half uneaten, and she was emphatic.

“None,” she said.

That made us feel a little better, in a perverse sort of way.

The Star is one of three Basque-style restaurants along a two-block section of Silver Street. If you were a sheepherder at the end of a long, hard day, the meal served – and served, and served, and served – here would make some sense. For already-pudgy Americans passing through town, it doesn’t.

Make no mistake, the food is delicious, particularly the specialties of beef and lamb. The rib eye steak fills a plate and the baked beef chunks are piled high. But first come the vegetable soup, Basque bread, green and pinto beans, French fries and spaghetti. When the waitress asks about dessert, you can tell her heart isn’t in it. Surely no one orders it.

There’s also picon punch (a stout combination of pecan liqueur, brandy and grenadine), which can quickly help you forget that you’re devouring enough calories for three large people. The restaurant won’t box any of your leftovers except the entrée, and that they just slip into a plastic bag.

We estimated that our leftover beef weighed in at about a pound. This, of course, didn’t count a pint of vegetable soup, two healthy servings each of green beans and pinto beans, a super-size serving of French fries and the virtually untouched spaghetti that we sent back to the kitchen.

Again, it’s not just quantity. The food is good – when we asked at our hotel about the best place to eat in town, the desk clerk immediately recommended the Star. It’s welcome at the end of a long day’s drive and it’s authentic.

The backside of the menu details how the Star survived Prohibition by surreptitiously continuing to serve liquor. It’s the place John Edwards went to during is campaign through Nevada. The dining room is routinely filled with ranchers, students from the nearby University of Nevada Fire Science Academy and travelers from Idaho.

Since we were traveling and didn’t want the meat to go to waste, Kathleen wanted to find a homeless person to give it to.

“Sweetie,” I said, “we’re in Elko, Nevada. We’re not going to find any homeless people.”

Nonetheless, we went looking for homeless people to feed. Really. We figured if we couldn’t find a person, we’d find a hungry dog.

Five or six blocks from the restaurant we spotted a man, hunched over, walking slowly, carrying a heavy backpack and soiled sleeping bag and using a walking stick. We looked at each other – “No, it couldn’t be.” It was. We pulled over.

“Excuse me,” Kathleen said. “Have you had dinner yet?”

“No, ma’am,” said the man, whose white hair and beard put him in his 60s.

“We just came from the restaurant and have some steak,” she said. “It’s still warm and really good. We just couldn’t eat all of it.”

He walked over and gently took the two bags containing our steak and beef chunks, said “thank you,” and walked away.
Our middle-class guilt momentarily assuaged, we drove away.

"Oh, wait!" Kathleen nearly shouted. "We should give him a bottle of wine," thinking of the three cases we had in the back seat from our recent visits to California vineyards.

"Maybe not," I said. "That may be how he became a hobo."

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